Archive for the ‘Actor interviews’ Category

“Interviewing Creative Subjects”

November 19, 2010

At the 2010 Japan Writers Conference last month, I gave a presentation on interviewing creative subjects. It was based on what I have learned over nearly a decade of journalism in which I have often interviewed authors, actors, movie directors and other creative people.

Many of these people are celebrities, but I never approach my task as a “celebrity interview.” Instead, I focus meeting a “creative subject” whose work – a book, a movie, or a collection of art – I now have the chance to discuss with them. I believe it is much more interesting to learn about what they were thinking as they made their creations, and how they went about doing it, and what they hope to accomplish, than to pry into their sex lives or gush over their designer clothing.

I find “celebrity” journalism boring. But “creative subjects” fascinate me.

But because they are often celebrities, many of these people have been interviewed dozens or hundreds of times before, and they are tired of it. They have stock answers to all the predictable questions. If those are the only questions you ask, you’ll wind up with a bunch of quotes that many of your readers will have seen before, which will make for an unexciting article.

To get new answers, you must ask new questions. And that takes research.

Internet prep

In the part of my presentation shown in the video below, I describe some of the ways you can do pre-interview research on the Internet. Check YouTube for interviews the person has already done. Follow your subject on Twitter. See what Wikipedia and Imdb have to say, but double-check what you find there.

This sort of preparation improved the results of my interviews with the actors Bob Amaral, Christian Bale, Rachel Nichols and Marlon Wayans. Watch the video to hear how.

Look beyond their usual field

You can sometimes get a new angle on a creative person’s work by asking about things they have done slightly outside of their usual field.

If you are interviewing a movie actor, have they also done work on the stage? Have they done voices for animation? If you’re interviewing a painter, sculptor or architect, have they ever worked on stage or movie sets? Has your movie director also done TV ads or music videos? Has your musician ever worked on a soundtrack for a movie or video game? Did your novelist have a cameo role in a screen adaptation of their work?

Look for these things in your research, and then turn them into specific questions.

In the video below, I describe how this worked for me when I interviewed novelist Nicholas Sparks.

Write questions like an English major

Apply the tools of literary criticism and analysis to your reading or viewing of the subject’s work. Look for recurring themes, watch for stylistic patterns, and observe how plots are structured and characters are revealed. Then, turn those observations into questions.

Creative subjects love it when you show that you are ready, willing and able to intelligently discuss their work. This helps get them more enthusiastic about the interview, so that they will open up more than they might have, and possibly tell you something new.

In a previous entry, which you can read here, I described how I used this technique when interviewing Sylvester Stallone about the last Rambo movie. In the video below, I describe how it worked when I interviewed director Scott Derrickson about his remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Ask questions like an English teacher

Like many native English speakers who live in Japan, I first came here to work as a language teacher. It was often a challenge to get students to speak in class. Two bits of jargon I often heard at school were TTT (teacher talking time) and STT (student talking time). We teachers were supposed to minimize TTT and maximize STT.

Some of the ways in which teachers get students to talk can also be used by an interviewer to get a subject to talk. Watch the below video to find out more.

Prepare questions, but not a script

A list of questions is indispensable for a good interview, but the list shouldn’t control the interview. To keep your subject feeling relaxed and open, you should use the list as a guideline to nudge the flow of an otherwise natural-seeming conversation.

There are many ways to order the questions on your list, but it helps to think about one of following three patterns:

Long, then short
Easy, then tough
Vital, then weird

Watch the video below to hear me elaborate on that.

If you want to know more about the Japan Writers Conference, visit the official site here, or read my notes on other presentations I attended here.

Sylvester Stallone, the 2010 Japan Writers Conference, and me

October 7, 2010

The fourth annual Japan Writers Conference will be held Oct. 10-11 in Tokyo, with about 30 writers from various genres and media giving presentations on the technical, artistic and business aspects of their careers.

One of them will be me. I’m going to give a talk on “Interviewing Creative Subjects,” based on my own experience of interviewing novelists, actors, artists, movie directors and other creative people for newspaper features stories.

Sometimes you’ll be the first to discover a creative person, but in many cases the people you will interview have been interviewed before – especially movie people. They tend to have answered the same old questions a thousand times, and they have a supply of canned answers ready to go.

But these are not the questions you want to ask, or the answers you want to get.

If you ask new questions, you will get new answers.

Then you can use those answers to write an article that contains quotes and information that your readers haven’t seen before.

Two years ago I did an interview with Sylvester Stallone that illustrates at least three of the points I will make in my JWC presentation.

1. Look for themes in the work

The topic of the interview was the fourth movie in Stallone’s Rambo series, which was about to open in Japan. I attended a screening of the film before the interview. (Seeing, reading or listening to your subject’s latest movie, book or album is the minimum starting point of the preparation you should do.) I was put off by the unrelenting violence, and I was shocked to see that footage of real violence was mixed in. The movie takes place in Burma (or Myanmar) and one of the real-life clips showed a Japanese journalist named Kenji Nagai being shot to death by government forces.

At first, I couldn’t think of any questions that I would enjoy asking Stallone – who directed and cowrote the film, as well as starring in it – but my preparation for the interview also included going to the video store and renting the three previous Rambo movies to see if any patterns emerged. I realized that the new film was far more cynical than its predecessors. In the first movie, Rambo uses violence to justifiably (if extravagantly) defend himself against corrupt police who are persecuting him. It’s tragic, but at least the guilty pay for their sins. In the next two movies, Rambo uses violence to make the world a better place, by rescuing forgotten American prisoners in Vietnam or helping to liberate Afghan villagers from Soviet invaders. But in the new movie, Rambo’s violence accomplishes nothing. The world is left at least as badly off as it was before, and the few surviving characters are all a lot less happy at the end.

So, I asked Stallone if this reflected an evolution in his worldview. He gave me an earful about how, “As you get older you get more cynical.” He expanded on that bleak theme with some eloquence.

2. Ask the hard questions – softly

I went into the interview thinking that his inclusion of Nagai’s death was tasteless and offensive. But I would have gotten nowhere in the interview if I had asked, “Why did you do such a tasteless and offense thing?”

Instead, I mentioned that I recognized this particular scene from among the real-life footage he used, and then I asked how he hoped, or expected, that Japanese audiences would react to it.

I was trying to sound curious rather than hostile. This approach worked. Stallone seemed quite happy to answer the question, perhaps because he knew he was talking to someone who had paid close enough attention to his film to notice this detail, or perhaps because he was eager to discuss it and I had presented myself as someone who was ready to listen to his answer. I showed him that I was looking for an explanation rather than an argument, and he gave me an answer I could use in my story.

If your interview subject made a creative (or even political) choice that you disagree with, don’t pick a fight. Simply state what they did and then ask a neutral question that requires them to explain themselves, such as: “What were you trying to accomplish by doing that?” “What went into that decision?” “How do you anticipate (or hope) that people will respond?”

Interview subjects are likelier to open up and explain themselves to you if they think you are an understanding observer rather than an argumentative adversary.

3. An interview is not a review

Reviewing is good training for interviewing, because it gets you in the habit of analyzing creative works. But while a review is about what you think, an interview is about what the creator thinks. You should be more concerned with drawing out his or her ideas than with justifying your own.

If I had simply reviewed the 2008 “Rambo,” I would have been harsh. But my job as an interviewer was to get Stallone to explain himself, and then to pass those explanations on in ways that would be interesting and informative to readers.

Of course, a certain degree of description is unavoidable, and I began my article by calling “the fourth film in the series…the most violent, horrific and cynical yet.” I think that counts as fair warning to the type of moviegoer who would be put off by such fare, and I think it is a characterization that even Stallone would readily agree with. But beyond that, most of my article reports what he told me about his ideas – ideas that my questions showed him I was ready to listen to.

“Rambo” will probably never make my list of all time favorite movies. It’s too close to reality in its horror. But after eliciting Stallone’s explanation of the philosophy behind it, I can now say that I understand and respect what he was trying to do.

And those are insights that I was able to pass along to my readers.

For more in this vein, come to my JWC presentation at 10 a.m. on Oct. 11 (it’s a Monday, but a national holiday). A map to the campus venue in Nerima Ward, Tokyo,  appears below. It is next to Ekoda Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro train line, and not far from Shin Ekoda Station on the Oedo subway line. Be aware that the main gate will be closed, and visitors will have to follow the signs to a gate on the south side. For more info, visit or follow JapanWritersCon on Twitter.